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Longtime KLRE/KUAR leader Ben Fry dies at 54

Ben Fry
Michael Hibblen
Ben Fry on May 5, 2012 at the transmitter building for KUAR on Shinall Mountain west of Little Rock.

A memorial service is scheduled to begin Monday at 11 a.m. for longtime KUAR and KLRE General Manager Ben Fry who died in his sleep early Thursday. He was 54. It will be held at St. James United Methodist Church, 321 Pleasant Valley Drive in Little Rock.

Fry had served as general manager of UALR Public Radio since 1995. He managed all aspects of administration and operations of the stations, including finances, management, engineering, programming and fundraising. He joined the stations in 1988, first as news and information director, then served as program director for one year before becoming general manager.

"Ben was a fantastic example of the integration of the instructional mission of the university with the public service mission of the university," said Lisa Bond-Maupin, dean of the College of Social Sciences and Communication, which includes the radio stations. "He was a dedicated radio professional who also loved to teach and to provide students with opportunities to learn through involvement with the public radio stations. He was also just a really wonderful colleague."

News Director Michael Hibblen worked for Fry twice, first in the mid-1990s, and again beginning in 2009.

"What always amazed me was his calm demeanor no matter what was going on and how he could do any and every job in the radio station. In particular, you'd often find him on the floor doing laborious engineering work or updating computer software," Hibblen said.

Ben Fry
Michael Hibblen
Ben Fry at the arrival of NPR's mobile StoryCorps recording studio in Little Rock on March 29, 2012.

Fry's broadcasting career began in his hometown of Wynne, Ark., where he worked weekends at the local radio station while still in high school. In 1980, he moved to central Arkansas to attend the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and got a part-time job with commercial radio station KARN as an announcer. By 1983, he had been promoted to a full-time position as the station's creative director, writing and producing commercials.

William Wagner was working as a part-time board operator at KUAR and KLRE when Fry was hired by the stations. Today Wagner is operations manager and says Fry's calm leadership was key in getting the best out of employees.

"In radio, you have a lot of different types of personalities and different types of people. Ben had this ability to bring people together and have them work as a unit," Wagner says. "He was a unique person who knew every inch of the station. He knew every bolt and wire that was out of place when something went wrong and there was no way we could have made it this far without his talent."

Fry was beloved by staffers as being a kind, understanding boss, but one who still held his employees to high standards.

"He had a very warm heart, was a bit of a pushover in a way," said Ann Nicholson, who has been an arts reporter with the radio operation for 34 years, during Ben's entire time there.

"He wasn't intrusive, he didn't go hover and make you feel he was listening to what you were trying to do. When he came to anything that was going wrong, he knew exactly who to go to and make sure it was helped or rectified or something. It was hard for him to be a boss in a sense that he would point out things that needed to be addressed."

"He meant a great deal to this community and had a lot to do with bringing public radio to serve this community in the best way possible," says former Development Director Mary Waldo.

Ben Fry
Michael Hibblen
Ben Fry with Talk Business & Politics host Roby Brock during a pledge drive at KUAR on Oct. 24, 2014.

Fry also worked closely with the Friends of KLRE/KUAR, which is a non-governing advisory organization that supports fundraising and volunteer activities.

"I think Ben is one of those guys when you walk into a room, I think he's fairly introverted, but he's also the heart of the room," said Kathryn Hazelett, who is the group's current president.

"He knows everything about the radio station and everything about what's happening and if you had any questions, Ben was always there with an answer, he was always there to help, he was always there to, maybe if you were a little too exuberant about something, he might kind of say, 'Hey, the way this has worked in the past is like this,' which might be a little dose of reality, which sometimes you need when you're super excited about something. But Ben was just such a stalwart, so ever-present, so amazing, such a great asset for the radio."

Fry received a bachelor's degree in communications from UALR in 1987 and a master's degree in journalism in 1998. He later became an adjunct professor in UALR's School of Mass Communication, teaching classes in motion picture history, criticism and screenwriting. He served as the school's coordinator of film studies. 

He made presentations about movies at several local events and wrote articles about Arkansas film history for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. He hosted a movie show on UALR's University Television, Home Fry-ed Movies, screening public domain movies and providing commentary.

Dr. Jamie Byrne-McCollum worked with Fry when he was coordinator of the film program and they served together on leadership committees for the university.

"I always very much valued his bright mind and his cool head and his big heart. I think it's probably what characterized him. As a colleague and an employee, you couldn't ask for better. And as a friend, he was without par. I think if there's a silver lining, it's that the very loving legacy that he leaves will be long and far reaching."

Ben Fry
Ben Fry alongside his production staff for Home Fry-ed Movies.

Philip Martin, a columnist and film critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette who also has taught at UALR, says he feels it was easy to take Ben for granted because he was so modest.

"He was just there like a landmark or something, but not like a Washington Monument but more like the drive-in where you got your soft ice cream or something. Ben was an interesting figure in that he had a foot in two worlds: in journalism and in academics. Both those world as kind of famous for cattiness. But in that world, I've never heard anyone say anything negative about him," Martin said.

Fry is survived by his wife Karen and their two children, Sarah and Sam.

“Ben had two children, Sarah and Sam, but he often joked that he had four: Sarah, Sam, KUAR, and KLRE. He was extremely dedicated to public radio and its mission," says Karen Tricot Steward, who serves as Content Development Director for the stations and worked with Fry for over 15 years. 

"He challenged us all to think creatively and think strategically about the future of the stations. He also would joke that he loved to hire people who disagreed with him because he wanted many viewpoints represented when it came to making key decisions about our approach to programming.” 

Program Director Nathan Vandiver is now serving as interim general manager for UALR Public Radio.

Fry's family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Friends ofKLRE/KUAR or to their church, St. James United Methodist Church in Little Rock. An education fund for Ben Fry's children Sarah and Sam is being established, but details are not yet available.

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.
Karen Tricot Steward was a News Anchor, Reporter and Content Development Director for UA Little Rock Public Radio.
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